Jo Noero is eager to take a drive around the city. Since moving to St. Louis from South Africa in 1997, Noero reckons he's driven down every street that makes up the mad labyrinth of the cityscape. It's one of the newfound freedoms he's enjoyed since coming to America to join the faculty of the Washington University School of Architecture, for which he now serves as director of graduate studies. "I've never felt more free in my life," he says with undeniable exuberance. "I've never felt more energized. There are things that you can do here that you really can't do anywhere else in the world."
One of those things is to hop into his compact blue Geo and drive during his free time. "I just love it. It's the greatest thrill in the world." He proves that he's discovered the more significant city landmarks, offering Crown Candy Kitchen as a destination for a late lunch.
A ham-and-cheese at Crown Candy, cruising the city in a Geo -- these are not the stereotypical accoutrements of a successful architect. One imagines symbols of prestige to adorn an enormous ego -- the tools of arrogance. "Architect" doesn't go with "affable." Yet Noero is the most respected architect in his home country, receiving numerous awards from the Institute of South African Architects for a wide range of projects: career centers, sports facilities, office buildings, 15 Anglican churches and an addition to Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Soweto home, housing for the poor, the middle-class and the wealthy. In 1993 he received the first major international recognition for his work, the prestigious Erskine Fellowship from the Swedish Academy of Arts and Architecture. Most recently Noero was awarded, through an international competition, the commission for the Apartheid Museum in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. He's being written and talked about in what has become a globalized architectural world, with people such as British architecture critic Catherine Slessor, writing in Architectural Review: "Compared with the fashionable excesses of much current American and European architecture, the strong, socially minded work of Jo Noero brings us back to our senses."
The sensible, modest architect Noero drives east on Forest Park Avenue with the aggressive, freewheeling style of someone who learned to drive in a big city, his city being Johannesburg. Here in the less-than-bustling metropolis of St. Louis, the new Federal Courts Building comes into view, a structure that is already referred to, in some circles, as "the big penis." Noero isn't so dismissive: "I don't mind it. It's got quite a handsome proportion." He speaks with an English accent that lends a worldly charm to phrases such as "quite a handsome proportion."
"I don't like it close up," he adds. "It's got a nasty proportion on the street level and the colors are a little bit strange, but it's a brave new building on the city skyline of St. Louis. So bravo! Let's have more of them."
A distinctive part of Noero's character is the way he doesn't focus on the building itself but sees it in the context of possibility: part of a bold city skyline in the making.
Heading north on Grand, he expresses his admiration for the Continental Building, that sad, distinguished relic that lingers on the skyline like a memory that refuses to dissolve. Noero drives down Washington to Spring. Nearby is a site for which he drew housing plans at the request of the Grand Center development association. "The thing Grand Center needs is people living here," he says decisively. "Until that happens, it's just going to be a one-stop entertainment place with massive parking areas, and that's the end of it."
We pass by the ongoing construction of the building that will contain Emily Pulitzer's prestigious art collection. Having studied Tadao Ando's design plans, Noero believes it's going to be one of the finest buildings by Japan's most acclaimed architect. He praises its "modesty" -- another word that seems out of place in regard to modern architecture, but it's one Noero appreciates. "Modesto -- in good proportion," he qualifies in Italian, returning to the Latin root of the word.
From the Ando building -- and all the wealth and prestige it symbolizes -- to a few meager blocks of Olive with empty lots, brick homes and shops in various states of collapse, a few brave buildings standing firm against neglect: the St. Louis urban landscape the privileged can avoid. Noero had proposed clusters of single-family homes for the area -- homes with distinct, proud public facades, he explains, but with private spaces for each individual family where "people could do whatever the hell they wanted to." He mischievously connects this design concept of "public virtue, private vice" to the Lewinsky-Clinton affair.
Noero drives down the block of mostly abandoned brick structures and imagines the possibility of Grand Center as a thriving area of shops, restaurants, cultural activities, St. Louis University -- and families living here.
"The problem is that this is what you could get to replace it," Noero says as the housing development, Westminster Place, comes into view.
Westminster Place -- beginning at the corner of Olive and Vandeventer -- stands insolently amid the squalor. For Noero, this recent housing development is the primary example of a frightening trend in the city's re-creation. He derides Westminster Place as "these big lumpy buildings where four or five families live, then there's a little piece of ground in between and then another lumpy building -- and that land doesn't belong to anyone."
Those lumpy buildings squat on the terrain like lumps of dough, just as Noero described them. "This is suburban and quite sad," he says.
He drives a few blocks west to look at the buildings that Westminster Place fails to emulate -- the majestic houses that served families of another St. Louis era.
"They try to capture the effect of these old, grand houses," Noero says. "But what they don't realize is, the pattern of use has changed and people can no longer afford to live in those big houses. So they make four smaller houses look like these big houses, and it's a really awful place for people to live. There's no private yard space for kids to play in; no garden space is your own."
Disgust rises in Noero's voice, "It's really appalling. It's really miserable housing. This is not family housing for people in cities. They try to capture the effect of the big house on this piece of land, but in the process they end up with all this sterilized space they're not making any use of. I'm not even criticizing it from the point of view of aesthetics; it's just such a woeful waste of city space. I'd never move in here with a family. I'd never want to."
Noero articulates the strange disharmony Westminster Place effects on the city landscape. This is more than unimaginative design, a plan for housing that is replicated in cities across the country -- across the world, actually -- that inflicts a dull homogeneity on people's everyday lives. Westminster Place is the propagation of a lie: the facade of middle-class life, a faux suburbia. People move to the suburbs for space, a yard, quiet; they do not live four families to a building in a place that is no place, with only a name to reference it to more nobler aspirations.
A drive anywhere in the city reveals stark divisions of race and class, the gated neighborhoods of the prosperous abutted by the vulnerable zones of the urban poor. A drive east on Lafayette Avenue, for example, passes by stately homes with fresh paint jobs into a region of urban blight: the shell of City Hospital, the ongoing demolition of the Darst-Webbe housing project -- sites that will never make it onto any Chamber of Commerce tour. Between the old City Hospital and the I-55/I-44 cloverleaf is a nearly barren stretch of land: another vacant lot drivers ignore on their way to the comfortable suburbs of West County and Illinois. A few brick houses crumble into time. Some still serve as shelter for those who can't afford the renovated glory of the surrounding neighborhoods of Lafayette Park and Soulard.
In this desolate strip of land, Noero has found opportunity. It is here he is proposing an alternative to developments such as Westminster Place, to demonstrate to St. Louis a way toward building housing that combines efficiency and humanity, that nurtures community, that makes a city modern and new while retaining its character -- an attractive cosmopolitan place where families will live.
There's history here. Bohemian Hill is not a name many St. Louisans recognize. If there's any familiarity with this place, it's as "No-Man's Land." But before the interstates came to separate them, Soulard, Lafayette Square, LaSalle Park and the former Bohemian Hill were part of one large community. The first Czech church in America remains -- St. John Nepomuk Catholic Church on 11th Street -- a remnant of what was once a thriving Eastern European community, "Little Bohemia." An enlarged aerial photograph of the area, taken circa 1950s, shows a tightly clustered group of homes and shops, an urban neighborhood that somehow was erased.
The photograph is on view in the 12th Street studio Noero shares with his partner, Don Royse, and assistant, Amit Patel. It leans against a scale model of what could be the future of Bohemian Hill: 119 moderate-income homes built to reclaim the vitality of a cosmopolitan community.
Noero and Royse have designed three houses to serve as demonstration models, slated for construction this spring: three-story, three-bedroom, terrace-style homes that are distinctly contemporary but blend into the historic area as well. "People say you can't build in the city for less than $120,000," says Noero. The projected market value of these houses is $100,000. Once people see it can be done, Noero believes, it will be a catalyst for the realization of the entire project, and Bohemian Hill -- a name nearly forgotten -- will be revived.
"We're going to build them, aren't we, Don?" Noero prods his partner.
Royse pauses before he answers. Royse, who recently retired from the Wash. U. School of Architecture, served as director of city design for three years and was one of the people instrumental in making MetroLink a reality. He has an intimate knowledge of how things get done -- and don't get done -- in the city of St. Louis. So it takes him a moment before he nods affirmatively: "Yes. We are."
One of the things the Bohemian Hill project has in its favor is strong support among those who live nearby, support that was developed over a series of community meetings. Noero and Royse moved into the studio on 12th Street to become visible to the community they were working to change. They have spent a great deal of time talking, and listening, to their neighbors.
"It's a long, complicated process," Noero says of the community meetings. Patel, a recent graduate of the Wash. U. School of Architecture, describes it in more colorful terms: "It's a messy process. Everyone's very protective of what they want to do. I've learned that to be an architect you have to have a lot of patience."
Patience may be the primary virtue necessary to practice socially responsible architecture. If the premise of architecture is to serve people, rather than to impose exquisite modern forms upon them, it means that architects need to listen to the needs of a given community. Design, then, is partly governed by those needs, not by the dictates of pure form.
Through the community meetings held at St. John Nepomuk, Noero found that "the starting premise was that this area needs new housing. It would be preferable if it was family housing, owned by the family. We needed to build a model of housing that was both historically sensitive to the area but which offered a little bit more than what the current housing stock does -- for example, an efficient layout without too much given over to circulation, with the idea of a private outdoor space, garage access and so forth. That's what we started off with."
Royse says that one of the many conflicts that arose was "the relationship between the family and the good life and their car. As we were doing the plan, we tried very hard to make the automobile a nonintrusive part of their lives. There were some people on one side who would have been happy to ban the car, but we tried to give as many people as possible a garage that was close to their unit and adequate parking for everyone. It's not easy to do and keep the scale of an area like Soulard. It was something that was rather difficult, but we think we've come to some balance."
A concern for the achievement of balance, like modesto, is a common theme that arises as the two men talk. It's a principle that sets them apart from the impetus toward making buildings as fine-art objects, which has been the driving aesthetic in architecture in the postwar period. As architects who actually believe that architecture can better people's lives, they sometimes have found themselves delegated to the "granola" camp -- a derisive term used to describe those who are concerned with social issues, supposedly at the expense of fine design.
"The thing that's frustrating to me," says Royse, "was that it became an either/or argument. There tended to be discussions that were either based on good design or focused on social concerns. It doesn't have to be either/or."
In praise of Noero's work, Royse focuses on this theme. "It's a concern for excellent design but with an eye to how it is contributing to the social well-being of people who are living in those buildings."
"There is a fight at the moment for the soul of architecture in this country," Noero adds, "between those who hold it as a purely autonomous discipline where it's form for form's sake only and another bunch who take up an equally absurd position that beauty is not important; you just have to serve society. Then there's that middle ground, which is really what the promise of modern architecture was: socially purposeful and beautiful."
The Bohemian Hill project is an example of that middle ground. The utilization of space is impressive -- and essential, with the availability of a mere 1,300 square feet for each floor. The three demonstration houses fit snugly together. Side spaces that usually stand vacant beside houses in urban settings have been erased. Yet each family has its own private courtyard that is concealed from the street and from the neighbors. One of the tricks to providing so much space is a side entryway. In a multilevel home, Noero explains, half the space of the living room is lost because it serves as a route to the staircase. Noero doesn't mind admitting that this isn't a new idea. "It's really a version of the shotgun house," he acknowledges.
Adaptability is another new/old concept that is a fundamental goal in the design of these houses. "The problem of a lot of modern housing is that it's unifocal," says Noero. "It's designed like a suit of clothes, and when you can't fit into the suit any longer you have to sell it and buy something else. When the kids grow up you sell the house and move to a smaller house. It's like getting a new model of automobile." In Soulard, Noero met people who had been residents of the area for 30 years. They've remained, Noero argues, partly because the design of those older homes provided for generations of change. "There are a lot of these old houses that are capable of fantastic adaptation. So people live in them over generations because they can shrink or expand, depending upon the family's needs. In the suburbs you can't do that." In these three-story houses one floor may become an office or a storefront, Noero observes, or an apartment space.
Contrary to the either/or argument, these houses are both utilitarian and attractive. A brick facade wraps around the whole structure, in keeping with the existing Soulard style. "It mimics the proportion but wraps around and takes you from the street and into the court," Noero describes, "with big bay windows that become the eyes on the street from the living room.
"In a city like St. Louis you have to be inventive," Noero argues, "and you have to be pretty progressive about how it is you can reinhabit the city. If you simply try to re-create it as it was in the 19th century, it's not going to happen. It seems the terrace house is a good solution for city housing in St. Louis."
The wrong approach, Noero reiterates, is developments such as Westminster Place: "You have developers who are really building suburban homes on tracts of land in the city. That's a really very dangerous move. Cities are interesting places to live because of the concentration and density of people. The higher the density and concentration of people, the greater the ability you have to support other facilities like corner shops, restaurants, cultural facilities. That simply has to do with income thresholds. You build up a certain threshold where it makes it possible for a community to have those other uses normally attached with a healthy urban environment.
"It means that what you have to do is build at a fairly high density. When you build a suburban-sprawl-type density in North St. Louis, you're not achieving anything. You're building the suburbs, which means you still have to have the strip-mall supermarket that everybody has to travel to by automobile because the income thresholds are so low you can't afford the corner shop. It seems to me the strategy is completely wrong for the city.
"It seems that St. Louis should be concentrating its efforts to increase the density of those centers in the city that are already functioning well instead of trying to spread this housing as a thin layer across the city, which is going to cripple the city in the future."
Noero can speak with such certainty about St. Louis' future -- or its possible futures -- because he has made himself so knowledgeable of the city's past. This is part of Noero's process, learning the history of a place before he suggests plans toward the furtherance of that history.
Noero is engaged in the activity of urban renewal, and "renewal" is a paradoxical word. "Re-new" implies "to make new again," but that "again" suggests there needs to be a knowledge of what was. There are forces that would annihilate the memory of place. It's such forces that transformed Bohemian Hill into No-Man's Land, that will turn the Arena into an office park. Rather than maintain connections to its own history, the city commits acts of erasure. History is manipulated to support illusions of progress. Noero points to one of St. Louis' most beloved icons as a monument to false history and false hope.
"The single worst decision the city made was to build the Arch. The Arch has an ambition that overreaches the city. It dominates the city, just through its scale, that sterilizes all the land around it."
Where many see a symbol of progress, Noero sees a cold monument to a community destroyed. People lived there, and not in the squalor that the official history demands. "In order to build the Arch they had to destroy the riverfront," he says, "and that meant getting rid of the urban poor who were supposedly living in slum conditions, which was a lot of nonsense. It was an attempt by the city fathers to get rid of the poor who were living in the most strategically important part of the city, which is where the poor should be because it gives them access to work opportunities and so on -- to making the city pretty by making their poverty invisible. It was the single worst move that the city could have made.
"For me, when I see the Arch it seems to be such a pathetic and hopeless symbol. Whilst it's a strong cultural symbol, as an urban gesture and what it has done to the city, it has done more harm than good. You see it sitting there with that stupid parkland around it, which no one can actually use. I don't know any citizens of St. Louis who use it. It's a good thing to look at when you're driving past in your car at 50 miles per hour. You see it as a symbol of the city on the horizon from 30 miles away, but it does nothing to the city. It does absolutely nothing to the city.
"What it does do, in quite a pathetic way, is it talks about a city that has an overarching ambition to place itself as an important city, which it doesn't really enjoy nationally. It's a futile and pathetic effort on the part of the city that tried to claim a kind of greatness that had already slipped by, but in the process of achieving that it tore the heart out of the city. History will tell us that the single worst move that the city made was to build the Arch. It's a symbol of everything that is wrong with the city."
South Africa/St. Louis
Noero comes from a place with a history of incomparable wrongs and is part of the human legacy, the ongoing struggle to right those wrongs. "I come from a world where you're taught that architects have an ethical responsibility," Noero says. He is of the generation that brought down the cruel institution of apartheid. In the late '60s and early '70s, while at the University of Natal in Durban -- one of the country's political hotbeds -- he became directly engaged in the social upheavals of the time. He studied medicine briefly, dropped out, then returned to study architecture from 1973-78. After he met his wife, Gillian, they moved to England for studies at the University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne but continued their anti-apartheid activities from London.
When Noero returned to teach at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, he declined to pursue government contracts for his private practice. That would have meant designing buildings made to sustain the segregation of society. The insanity of apartheid created an insanity of architecture -- each government building required four entrances for four prescribed races: white, black, colored and mixed. Buildings were designed as austere symbols of the regime, built to evidence power and divide peoples.
Noero's career as a practicing architect might never have emerged were it not for a fortuitous introduction to Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Noero speaks warmly of his friend "Desmond." As serious and determined as Noero is, when his face brightens with laughter it is wide as a clown's -- white hair contrasted by black, bushy eyebrows, combined with an impish grin. This is how his face broadens when he speaks of his friend.
"He has a wonderful ability of putting his finger right on the very issue," says Noero. He retells a story Tutu once used to illustrate to a white audience the depth of black anger and frustration in South Africa. "Can you imagine that black woman who brings you your coffee in bed every morning?" Noero begins. "Behind her smiling face lies a great deal of anger. And how do you know she hasn't put poison into your coffee? If every maid put poison in the coffee tomorrow morning, there would be no more white people in South Africa."
Noero laughs giddily at the reminiscence. "That one single comment sensitized white people who had black servants who were invisible presences. They just weren't there. You'd hear of people having the most embarrassing and candid arguments and discussions in the presence of a servant that they would never have in front of everyone else, with the assumption that the servant wasn't there. With Tutu's comment those servants became people, and it changed fundamental relationships in South Africa. He did it deliberately. He found the right metaphor. He found the right way to be able to say it."
Noero became principal architect for the Anglican Diocese of the Province of Transvaal, designing 15 churches and an addition to Tutu's private residence in Soweto.
By the 1980s and early '90s, during the time of international sanctions, the focus of the world turned to the struggle in South Africa. Noero was a part of that time of active change. "It was a lived experience of change. Every minute of your life you were confronted by this, and it became part of the way you lived your life. It was amazing."
After the release of Nelson Mandela and his subsequent election as president, Noero became as much a part of the restructuring of post-apartheid South Africa as he did the struggle to dismantle the system. With the full support of the new government, Noero designed buildings for which he began to receive his greatest international recognition.
One of those buildings was the Soweto Career Center. In an area where ramshackle housing was put together out of recycled corrugated metal, rather than dismiss those structures as unsightly memories that needed to be erased, Noero found integrity in the material. It was by no means ideal housing, but it revealed a high degree of ingenuity. The Career Center is made of corrugated steel not only to honor the past but to add to the modern structure a sense of familiarity.
Noero utilized members of the community as part of the labor force that constructed the Career Center, providing job skills to an underserved population and facilitating a sense of community ownership.
It can be a little unsettling to realize how readily Noero's strategies for rebuilding a nation devastated by apartheid could be adapted to St. Louis. The Bohemian Hill project will also employ a workforce from a neglected part of society, the students involved in Youth Build, offering them opportunities far beyond the limited horizons of service jobs. Before Noero designed homes for 114 families in the township of Alexandra, he spent 18 months studying the site and talking to people about their needs -- not unlike the community-meeting process in Soulard.
To argue that post-apartheid South Africa and St. Louis are the same would be simplistic, however. The differences are acute, and some of those differences have caused Noero feelings of disorientation. For example, the phrase "housing problem" has very different meanings in separate contexts.
"I come from a society where there's 39 percent structural unemployment. Sixty percent of the people who don't live in cities don't have access to decent sanitation, clean water." Noero rattles off these conditions as one who's known them intimately. "You come to St. Louis, and people talk about the housing problem and there are all of these wonderful abandoned buildings. Then you realize it's actually much more tragic than that -- the fact that these buildings are empty represents a city that's had the breath knocked out of it."
The fact of a dispirited city was cause for further disorientation.
"I was surprised at the extreme conservatism of people in the city. I came to America believing America was the place of great enterprise, of enthusiastic people who were on the move all the time. What shocked me about St. Louis was the naysayers -- this sort of 'Show-Me State' mentality, which I'd never associated with America. I'd associated it with say, southern German culture or some of the more conservative strains of Europe, but I'd never associated it with America."
When asked how much he believes the racial divide is a factor in the deterioration of the city, he speaks in terms rarely heard anymore in the post-Cold War world where the "free-enterprise system" has been the supposed victor.
"I come from a society where we don't see race as an issue," he explains. "We see race in classic Marxist/Leninist terms -- as part of the class struggle. What I find so interesting about America is that no one will discuss race in terms of class division. I think it's because America was so opposed to the communist ideology that they refused to see the categories Marxists would have used to describe how cities shape themselves and how communities get formed within the city. I see the race issue as really an issue of class division, a necessary condition of contemporary American capitalism. It's not going to disappear. The fact that it's given a color base has to do with the background of black people in this country. They've been discriminated against, so it's logical that, given the disadvantaged role the played in this society, they would end up being those people who would become part of the local proletariat."
Such talk would have put Noero on a blacklist in this country 40 years ago, but his approach to architecture embraces the most hallowed democratic ideals. His buildings are of the people, for the people and by the people. This is probably best exemplified in his design for the Law Courts building in Pretoria, commissioned by South Africa's Ministry of Justice. The former Law Courts building served the apartheid regime. It was designed to maintain segregation and to impress people with the autonomous power of the law. Noero's Law Courts building will have gathering places, a bus kiosk and taxi stand, even a public market. It is a design that will say, "This is the people's court."
Noero's principles of architecture -- that a building needs to conform to the context in which it is set in regard to both the physical and the social environments -- is far removed from much that has been touted as the great architectural achievements of the postwar period. Noero speaks with an elated zeal when he begins to tear down the false gods of modern architecture.
"Architecture has become irrelevant," he says. As he begins to describe what he calls the two types of American architects, he focuses on the supreme master of high-style architecture, Philip Johnson, the architect, perhaps most famously, of the AT&T building in New York City, with its stylish Chippendale-chair crown.
"He was a neo-Nazi," Noero says of Johnson. "He was a brownshirt. He went to Poland in the 1940s as a guest of the Nazis and came back and reported in the United States about how good the Germans were in dealing with the Polish people.
"The cynical self-interest of Philip Johnson is what pervades architecture today. You just do what the market tells you. Forget about people. Forget about cities. You want to be famous. You'll do anything to be famous. You'll do anything to shock. You'll do anything to be novel and new. The sense that architecture is a thing that resonates through people's lives and in the community of a city is lost entirely.
"So you have in America a cleavage between the do-gooders, who seem to be community architects, of whom it's presumed cannot make beautiful buildings -- that's why they're do-gooders -- and you have the muscle-bound superheroes who stride the world stage, designing these ridiculous buildings around the world in contexts that I think are bizarre. That's the state of architecture today, and that sense of architecture being this polite, well-mannered discipline that is generous and connected to communities and cities and enhances the quality of life of people -- it just doesn't exist.
"If I think of some of the discussions I've had with architects in the United States, they see architecture as having no moral dimension at all and architects as not having any ethical responsibility. The only ethical responsibility you have is to have great form. That's where the Philip Johnsons come from -- they're only interested in form. It collapses when you find there's no ethical dimension for the making of that form.
"I have a view that architecture is something that is born out of a purpose -- and you can have a good purpose and a bad purpose. Otherwise what are we talking about -- we're talking about architects building better and more efficient gas chambers and that being the measure of success. The moral argument gets to be more complicated when buildings built for a good purpose get transformed to suit a bad purpose. For example, the National Stadium in Chile, which was built by Allende to celebrate the independence of Chile, was used by Pinochet as a slaughterhouse when he came into power. But you can't blame the architect for that. But if you design a slaughterhouse and it's a beautiful slaughterhouse, then you're ethically wrong.
"The problem with the Philip Johnsons of the world is that they don't care about those issues. The work loses its value, and it becomes something quite shallow, quite hollow. It's really sad that this has happened to architecture, because the modern movement held that architecture could be this really important thing in the world, this really great force that would improve the quality of life of people in cities.
"It's styling. It's fashionable styling."
Drawing from Memory
If many of the self-glorifying modern architects are concerned only with the now, Noero's designs look as much to the past to inform the future. The theme of memory is central to Noero's work -- indicative of a man who is a descendent of generations of Italian stonecutters. He is concerned with preserving memory even as a place is renewed; honoring the past without replicating it, resisting the temptation of turning a city into a museum piece. Such concerns again set him in strong contrast to the formalist dictates prescribed by such influential figures as Walter Gropius, who banished history from the architecture curriculum during his time at Harvard.
So it is significant that as Noero works toward the rebirth, and the rediscovery, of Bohemian Hill, he is also working on a project 10,000 miles away -- the Apartheid Museum in the Port Elizabeth township, a commission Noero was awarded through an international competition. As Noero has built for a new South Africa, he is also building so that the legacy of the past, from which this new country is emerging, is not forgotten.
The proposed site in Port Elizabeth is called "Red Location," referring to the tint of the corrugated metal that was recycled to fabricate housing there. Red Location is where Mandela and many of the original members of the ANC came from, making this site the symbol of the vanguard of the resistance movement, a center of political activity since the 1940s.
"It's such a relatively new history," Noero comments. "The history has still got to be written. Part of the reason that they're pushing ahead with this museum -- and I think they'll be building a couple more in the next five or 10 years -- is that a lot of the material that we have about the years of struggle in the last 15-20 years in South Africa has got to be saved and archived very quickly; otherwise it will just deteriorate. A lot of trade union material and literature, political pamphlets and such were reproduced very cheaply, and if they're not collected and stored they will just disintegrate. So we need to build these centers where we can start to collect the information and catalog the information and look after it."
One of the most striking elements of Noero's design is a group of square structures called "memory boxes" that will fit within the museum. Made of corrugated metal, they will stand in rows, indistinguishable from each other. It will be impossible to know what is inside until one enters. Each box will contain a mini-exhibition featuring various aspects of apartheid's disturbing history, with the exhibitions changing as the history continues to evolve. Noero compares visiting the memory boxes to visiting a graveyard -- reading names and dates, piecing history together.
"The architecture itself tries to evoke spatially some of the memories of that period," Noero explains. "The whole question of the memory boxes, the dark spaces and the sense of ambiguity and uncertainty and the concealment, is very much imbedded in what happened in apartheid. You know, I lived through it, and there would be visitors from overseas who would say, 'Everything looks so normal.' They'd walk down the streets of Johannesburg, and everyone would seem very civil. 'Where is this dreadful system?' But people had the same reading of Germany in the 1930s in Berlin.
"Maybe in 50 years time people will look at the North St. Louis developments and say, 'How did that happen?' I drive through those streets and I'm just devastated at how bombed-out it is and how characterized it is by race. This is the most powerful country in the world, the most democratic country in the world, and no one wants to do anything about it. People just look at it and say, 'It's there.' If you go to Chicago and Cabrini Green, it's the same kind of thing.
"We all live with horror in our everyday lives, and we find ways of filtering it out."
Noero's architecture comes out of close observation of what is present, and adapting the existing condition -- even if it is corrugated-metal shacks -- finding what is integral there and transforming it to something more humane. This is in direct contrast to, even conflict with, the simplistic solution of erasure -- be it with a bulldozer, an airbrush or a pen -- replacing the past with an illusion of progress.
Real progress means a commitment to long struggle, taking real risks. "You have to really stick your neck out," Noero emphasizes. For St. Louis this means investing resources in renovation rather than taking the easier, cheaper, path of demolition. It means overcoming the tendency toward conservatism. As Noero observed when he first came here, "There was a real naysaying attitude amongst a lot of people in the city, including a lot of architects: 'You can't do anything. You can't build unless you copy what is there. No one wants to live in the city, so why should we bother to build there?' It just went on and on and on. It's nice to see that their attitude is changing, but what does worry me is that if we're supposed to solve the problems of the city, it needs to be adventurous. It needs to be able to take risks. It seems to me the conservative character of the city is holding back the potential."
But consider the risks Noero's generation took in the struggle against apartheid. The issues that have created such paralysis in St. Louis shrink in comparison. It's partly why Noero's perspective is so refreshing as it is so urgently voiced.
"There's a five-year opening," Noero says in regard to the prospect for city revitalization, "and then we're going to lose it; we'll lose the momentum. Now is really the time to start looking at new ideas in the city.